For the past several years the popularity of Critical Race Theory and some of its companion ideas have become popular topics of discussion. They are also, at times, popular whipping boys for conservatives. It’s not that conservative criticism of these things is wrong. I think their conclusions are, in general, right and important. But what is missing is a substantive discussion of the idea itself. The term “deconstruction” gets bandies around as though everyone knows what it means and some of the best teachers on the subject never get around to defining it. (Some may have, in books or pieces that I’ve not yet read.)
Deconstruction: What is it and why is it important?
At the core of deconstruction is something quite simple:
“a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.” (Oxford Languages)
This is pretty simple. First pick a subject. Then break it down into its components. Then find what drives it, what are its motivations. That will tell you its meaning.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact that sounds like a useful tool. And it is. It is, after all, used in every field as a diagnostic method for approaching problems and finding solutions.
This it begs the question: Why all the fuss?
The reason is this: The term should always be prefaced. There are types of deconstruction. Using the term without stating what type it is can leave the educated person wondering what is being talk about and the average person confused was to why such a useful tool might prove problematic. In other words, by being too general in our language we’re creating two problems. We’re telling both groups that we don’t really understand the issue. It can, and does, sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about.
If deconstruction is a useful tool, then has it been used in theology? Yes, it has. And its results are known to every evangelical. Back about 500 years ago, right after the Reformation, there was another movement called the Radical Reformation. In this movement was one very critical component. It was to move back to “what the Bible says” as a more primitive, a more Biblical theology. From this assumption we moved away from the liturgy of the Reformers and to the basics of (Ana)Baptist thinking: Call the individual to faith and baptize the adult on confession of faith. The teachings of the Bible were broken down to basic elements. Developed theology was, at least in part, rejected.
Later on, when the revivalists started, men like Wesley not only called individuals to salvation but left the church with this: Get people saved. That’s all there is to salvation. Salvation was reduced to the individual’s salvation. The covenant demands of the liturgical churches were rejected. What mattered was the individual. This way of thinking continues today where the theme is merely to “get them saved” and then deal with the rest later as time allows.
This is still with us. Many para-church organizations have their student participants go do beach evangelism, lead someone to Christ, and then leave the flounder. Tract-based ministries lead people to decisions without commitments. The ticket is punched and that’s what matters most.
In all of these situations the doctrine of salvation was deconstructed to its most basic, core components. The rest that surrounds it is generally ignored. The Christian faith has been deconstructed and not always for the better.
The Origin Story
But … what’s going on today that’s so important?
The current movement has been around since the 1930s. There was a group in Frankfurt, Germany. These were philosophical Marxists. They differed from Marx in a number of ways. Their goal was to take Marxism as a philosophy and affect social structures. To do so they introduced a variation on deconstruction that views the components through the lens of Marxism. They reformulated “truth” and “reason” to become “authenticity” and “imagination” so that the new ideals could easily alter perceptions of reality.
Ok, that sounds strange. You heard an example of this during the 2020 campaign when then-candidate Biden said “we choose truth over facts.” By “truth” he didn’t mean accurate information (because if he did then he would have no reason to make such a statement). What he meant was that truth is the lens through which facts are assessed. This is how reimagines facts in the light of the truth.
Part of the work of these men in Frankfurt was to break down power structures. While Marx was about economic power and conflict, the Frankfurt Group went about tearing down more than just economic classes. They went after all forms of dominion. So just as Marx made some general comments about the family and how it should serve the state and the collective, these men took another tack, another direction to the same ends. A man named Foucault applied deconstruction to power structures.
Family is a power structure. The family has been deconstructed to power-submission structures that are to be eliminated. What are these structures? Patriarchy is about power. Motherhood is about power. Fathers should have little or no say over wife and children. Mothers have been reduced to birthers. Parents would have no say in the public education of the children. This is the popular language of today. You can read it almost daily. These statements follow the theme.
Race relations and historic social structures are power structures. Economic class is a power structure. You’ve heard of that notorious “1%” gang. To be white is to inherit the guilt of abusive white people even if they’re not your ancestors. Just because you’re white. To be a person of color is to be a permanent victim, not a person with free will and opportunity. (Critical Race Theory, aka CRT, is merely the application of this method of criticism to questions of race and it’s the only one where the purveyors of the movement were honest enough to use the term “Critical Theory” and thus reveal its origins.) To operate a store is to be exploitive and greedy, so that theft must be encouraged by the state. These things, too, are happening daily and you can hear about them like clockwork.
These critical theorists did not ignore religious power structures. When a pastor speaks of “white guilt” or uses language that is consistent with it, he is compromising. When a church says women may be pastors, elders, or deacons, they’ve broken down the power structure to something small-d democratic and would allow anyone in based on skill set, not according to the typology of Ephesians 5 or the instruction of I Timothy 3. These are compromises of truth in light of today’s movements. It’s not just an alternative interpretation.
All of these things share the same theme. In technical terms it’s “neo-Marxist deconstruction” (also known as “Critical Theory”) from the Frankfurt school. But unfortunately, most people will get lost when you make such a precise statement. But at least you’ve got one here.
This is a thought patters which is inconsistent with Christian theology. The mission of the church is not to be a change agent intended on diminishing power structures. The Kingdom of God is a power structure built on His character and person. There is nothing higher or better. There is no other justice.